Editorial: EELV: Time for a Closer Look at EELV

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The U.S. Air Force’s plan to dramatically increase funding for its primary means of launching satellites — by more than 50 percent over the next five years, according to government and industry sources — should draw a new round of scrutiny to a program whose rising costs have long been a source of concern among lawmakers and policymakers.

The unclassified portion of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program budget has grown steadily in recent years, from $872 million in 2007 to $1.145 billion in 2010 — the final 2011 number has yet to be determined — and would jump by some $450 million in 2012 under current Air Force plans. Over the next five years the service intends to spend some $10 billion on the EELV program, or about $3.7 billion more than under the previous five-year plan, sources said.

This doesn’t count funding from the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office, which like the Air Force pays the marginal cost of individual EELV launches while separately contributing to an account that covers overhead and other costs and is designed to keep the program’s industrial base healthy despite suboptimal production rates. The spy satellite agency’s contribution to the EELV budget is classified, but has been described as significant by sources privy to that information.

Higher production costs for EELV prime contractor United Launch Alliance (ULA), the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture that builds and operates the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 launchers, are one reason for the coming budget spike. In addition, the Air Force wants to stabilize its EELV procurement rate at five per year — the service bought three in 2010 and plans another three in 2011 — in order to shore up the U.S. rocket-making industrial base.

The EELV cost growth is already drawing fire from at least one U.S. lawmaker, Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger (D-Md.), former chairman of the House Intelligence tactical and technical intelligence subcommittee. In a recent interview, the lawmaker complained that the U.S. government still does not have a roadmap for fixing underlying problems with the nation’s launch vehicle industrial base.

To be fair, the United States is not alone in facing issues with its launch industry. European Space Agency governments are debating another financial aid package that would pay Arianespace 120 million euros ($160 million) per year, and some think even more will be necessary in future years to keep the launch consortium out of the red. The agency has ordered up a financial audit of Arianespace and its industrial suppliers to get a better idea of the options that might be available. European officials say the audit might identify ways to cut Ariane 5 program costs or, alternatively, drive home the point to skeptics that rockets cost what they do for good reasons.

As it delves into the Air Force’s 2012 budget request, Congress should consider a similar audit of the EELV program, ideally one that reveals the total program cost, including the National Reconnaissance Office’s annual contribution, as well as the profit ULA returns to its parent companies. In addition to identifying potential cost savings, the audit — assuming its results are made public — might build the case for better rationalizing the U.S. space launch industrial base.

ULA says it is committed to reducing costs through measures that include trimming staff by 19 percent in the coming years. The company also has been studying manufacturing and operating efficiencies that could be achieved across the Delta 4 and Atlas 5 programs, such as using common upper-stage hardware for both vehicles. But nothing would do more to reduce EELV program costs than sizing the production and operating infrastructure according to current and projected U.S. government space launch demand, and that means going down to a single rocket family.

A policy dating back to the previous presidential administration requires the Pentagon to maintain two families of EELV rockets until such time as it can be demonstrated that a single family can provide assured access to space for critical U.S. national security and scientific payloads. Given the EELV program’s perfect track record to date  100 percent success in 37 missions — it might be time to revisit that policy. At minimum, this option should be on the table as the current administration works to update the U.S. national space transportation strategy.

As things now stand, the EELV budget is squeezing out other U.S. military space missions, space surveillance being one example. Meanwhile, ULA may have a viable competitor for Pentagon launches in a few years in Space Exploration Technologies Corp., which has successfully demonstrated the medium-lift Falcon 9 rocket twice and has expressed keen interest in moving into the EELV market.

Choosing between the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 would be extremely complicated, difficult and painful for a host of reasons; each vehicle has some unique capabilities, to cite just one example. But with the EELV program poised to consume a rapidly growing share of a flat to shrinking military space budget, it might be even more difficult to justify maintaining the status quo.